Spalt Your Own Lumber: Health problems associated with spalted wood, and debunking myths
Concerns about fungal spores are at the forefront of the American mind these days. Everyone seems to be concerned with mold in their homes, and a lot of hysteria has swept through about the relationship between fungal spores and their association with respiratory conditions. In this post, I’d like to separate out the fact from the fiction, and offer some tips on how to safely manage spalted wood.
Fact or Fiction: all fungi release spores, and all fungal spores are dangerous
FICTION! While Stachybotrys species (black mold) can be harmful if constantly inhaled over a long period of time, most of the spalting fungi do not produce the mycotoxin necessary to cause human harm. There are exceptions, of course, but in general wood decaying fungi do not represent a threat to humans (there is a big difference between a mold fungus and a decay fungus).
Fact or Fiction: spalting wood at home could introduce toxic spores to your living area
FACT! But before you panic, note that the key word here is COULD not WILL. Those mold spores are in the air wherever you go, especially if you are walking in the woods; so that wood spalting in your bathroom should not be the only suspect if you are having air quality issues. And just because you have a few toxic spores thrown in with all the normal ones is no reason to panic either. Unless you have an incredibly dark, damp, warm area where they can grow, those suckers will never have a chance to get started.
Fact or Fiction: finished spalted wood products should not be placed in contact with food
Fiction! If you dried your bowl before you finished it, the fungus is dormant in the wood. That means that, while not dead, it is no longer reproducing or producing spores. Any current spores in your wood will be sealed in by your finish. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using spalted wood for food items, as long as it is properly dried and sealed.
Fact or Fiction: I need to have a dust mask and air filter when working with spalted wood
FACT! But this isn’t a fact because you’re working with spalted wood, its a fact because you’re working with wood in general. Always, ALWAYS wear a dust mask (OSHA approved) when working with wood, especially when sanding. If you don’t have good airflow (or its winter), make sure you have an air filter working as well. Wood dust is a carcinogen, like most fine particulate matter. Keep it out of your lungs, because the neither the wood dust nor the fungi need to be there.
Some handy tips for making, handling, and machining spalted wood:
- Protect: I can’t over state this. You must wear a dust mask and use an air filter. Why take chances?
- Keep it sealed: While spalting in your bathroom works well, make sure the wood is in a plastic tub or plastic bag that is sealed. It shouldn’t be air tight, but it should restrict air flow. The less air flow you have, the fewer spores are being circulated. Also, sealed containers will help cut down on that rotting wood smell.
- Double up: on protection when sanding spalted wood. That dust isn’t just wood, its also fungi. Make sure you are wearing goggles when you are reducing spalted wood into particulate. I wear goggles when sanding even clear wood, because I’m not a big fan of wood in my eyes.
- Don’t panic!: I realize that the prospect of mold in the lungs isn’t pretty, but the world is full of professional mycologists who have been working with fungi for years, and are perfectly healthy. However I’ve heard about several woodworkers who, after 20 or so years in the shop (and working with spalted wood), have horrible lung and eye problems. My first question is always did they wear a mask?, quickly followed by how often did they wear their mask? So before someone goes blaming fungi for respiratory problems, I always suggest that they take a quick look at how much wood they’ve inhaled along with those spores.
- Dry wood can’t spalt
- Spalting is not inherently dangerous
- Wear proper protection, but don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
Bin it! These tubs provide everything the fungi need while keeping spore circulation at a minimum.
This spalted wood is producing mushrooms. Confinement via plastic bag helps keep the spores from the air (or your carpet).
A winning combination: air filter, OSHA approved dust mask (respirator) and goggles.